BAM will feature a selection of films from the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar (2008 edition recently completed). L film critic Cullen Gallagher, who worked for Flaherty this year, runs down the selection.
One of the perks of working film festival-related jobs is not do you only get to attend the big event, but hopefully you get to see a ton of great movies you won't see elsewhere. Such was my experience at this year's 54th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar held at Colgate College in Hamilton, NY. But for those who didn't make it upstate for the Seminar, highlights of the program are being re-screened at BAM this weekend, and they're very much worth checking out. Curated by Chi-hui Yang (of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), the theme of this year's Seminar was "The Age of Migration," and it popped up in myriad fashions: micro- and macro-stories about the movement of people; situations in which the filmmakers themselves were the objects of migration; and, in a metaphoric sense, the actual movement of narratives, as they cross not only borders, but hands and voices, and take on new meanings. (In light of this, perhaps it is only fitting that the these films have traveled south from Hamilton to Brooklyn.)
Inaugurated in 1955 by Robert's widow, Frances, the Seminar is an intensive weeklong gathering of filmmakers, scholars, programmers, critics and enthusiasts. Thrice-daily screenings and discussions build off one another in ways that typical film festivals do not: rather than exhibit the best of "new" cinema, The Flaherty examines the body of work of several filmmakers in the context of a themed program in which the films help to illuminate each other in new ways.
Several of the key issues that appeared in many of the films are highlighted in Flaherty's own The Land (1942). Reminiscent of Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), as well as Walker Evans' photographs from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
Flaherty's film details America's devastating rape of the soil, as well
as the potentially dangerous effects that the mechanization of farming
has on both the environment and the economy. The controversial role of
migrant workers in The Land becomes the primary focus of Lee Wang's God Is My Safest Bunker
(2008). Through the personal stories of several Filipinos working for
US Military contractors in Iraq, Wang illuminates the much broader
effects of war in the age of globalization. Wang skillfully blends the
emotional and the political, as well as the specific and the global,
all the while refusing to offer easy answers and overly simple
Undermining the assumed "authoritarian" nature of documentaries is Laura Waddington's Cargo (2001). "It had been years since I had been able to watch like that — without the pretense of understanding," admits the narrator, while Waddington's observational camera stares out of a porthole. Cargo is an insightful contradiction of global transportation and restricted movement: traveling by cargo ship for the Middle East, neither Waddington nor the other workers are allowed to disembark at ports. In lieu of unlimited access, Waddington uses her constraints as an aesthetic device. Filtered through a necessary extreme zoom and rendered in slow motion, Cargo's images are hazy and hypnotic: the ambiguities of truth and understanding become manifest in the blurred pixels of digital video.